- Historic Sites
Gargantuan, gross, and cynical, the patrician boss Boies Penrose descended from aristocracy to dominate Pennsylvania Republican politics for thirty years
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
All his life Boies Penrose had an aversion to funerals. He had given orders for a spartan interment. There were to be no guests, no attendants, not even a clergyman. There was something terrible and solitary about this scene. The gates were kept closed by the police. Five high-wheeled black automobiles, containing fewer than ten people, including Penrose’s three surviving brothers, drove to Laurel Hill, that most Victorian of cemeteries, filled during the nineteenth century with the grayed and yellowed and half-sunk mausoleums of rich ironmasters, deserted and empty. The grave was swept and garnished, the clods of earth were wet and dark. It was a day of cold black rain.
During the middle span of Penrose’s life, Lincoln Steffens wrote a famous book on American cities, calling Philadelphia “corrupt and contented,” a pair of adjectives that applied to Philadelphia politics at large; many people thought they also applied to Boies Penrose in particular. The truth was more complicated than that. Penrose had giant faults, but he was not personally corrupt. He had a giant appetite, but he was not contented. Beneath that mountainous flesh and behind that sternest of stoic countenances there lay, I think, the desperately solitary sadness of an unbelieving heart.
Penrose had left his estate to his three brothers. It amounted to a fraction of what his father had left him. The furnishings of 1331 Spruce Street were appraised at less than seventeen hundred dollars. His brothers found thirteen unworn suits, a dozen overcoats, four dozen new nightgowns, and in the cellar a stock of liquors appraised at a quarter of a million dollars. This last was legally theirs, since their brother had bought it before Prohibition became the law of the land, but a silly Pennsylvania law held that it could not be removed from the premises without a special permit of the state Prohibition director. Boies’s brother, Dr. R. A. F. Penrose, a distinguished geologist, moved into the house. He made an abortive attempt at writing his brother’s biography and died nine years later, also wifeless and childless. In 1934 the house was demolished to make way for a parking lot. A junk dealer paid four dollars for Boies Penrose’s giant tub.